For once, I thought I understood everything. What death meant. The way nature moved in particular rhythms and cycles—like continuous waves rolling into and out of our lives. Sometimes the waves carried good things with them. Sometimes they carried bad things.
I was thirteen. Small and easy to miss. Often, I thought I was invisible to the world, but suddenly that was okay, because at least it was all making sense.
My father owns a small farm in rural New Mexico. North, where—if we’re lucky—the Sangre de Cristo Mountains crack open in the spring and let loose a rolling flood into our valley. We have twelve fat-as-heck rabbits that eat cabbage and whatever nasty green leafy things we don’t. We have peahens that flaunt what little color they have along the adobe walls that line our property. They’re in charge. Unlike them, our one peacock circumnavigates the yard, not nearly as pompous as he is expected to be. He is quiet when he isn’t looking for another mate and waking the neighbors up in the process.
We grow New Mexico chiles in the dry earth. They’re popular, but everyone has their chile to sell at the farmers’ market, so we also grow other things, like saffron and Japanese shishito peppers. The shishitos are harvested green, and my father pan-fries them in olive oil and sprinkles them with coarse salt. When he stands beneath the tent and passes them on toothpicks to people passing by with their canvas bags overflowing with greens and heavy with root vegetables, they can’t resist pausing, tasting, buying.
Only one in every ten peppers is spicy, and so I make a game of it, watching their faces, predicting if their mouths will widen into an “O” as they suck in the air they hope will cool their insides. Or, if their eyes will close and their heads nod involuntarily.
Last year, one of the peahens jumped the fence and was chased into the next town by the neighbor’s ecstatic dog. It was chaos. That year, the apricot trees bore no apricots, and none of the babies survived.
Everyone knew about the horses. They knew about them, even if at the time they were surprised when the foal came out with his back and front legs pinned together in front, like a dog sitting down. By the time we realized it, there hadn’t been time to get help. The mare lived, but barely, and my mother blamed herself for not noticing any of the signs sooner.
Everyone knew about the dog too—the usually skinny, black whippet I’d begged my parents to at least half-take-in—who ran off into a canyon one day near the end of her pregnancy, was gone for days, and returned alone. She’d been a stray, so no one—except me—was very sad about it like they were with the foal.
What nobody knew about besides me were the ducklings. I spent most of the summer wandering Las Barrancas, the mesa that loomed silently behind our farm. A small dirt road led to a dry river bed, across which were the twisting gullies, snaking through the crusty red earth beneath the cliffs. Alongside the road that led to the canyons was a marshy area—an all-but-stagnant spring welling up—surrounded by cattails and barbed wire.
I found them by accident on my way through one morning.
The female mallard made her nest up against the sharp metal wire. It was a shallow depression, a swirl of dried grass and brown speckled feathers. I counted six eggs that first time, but I accidentally spooked the mother and she waddled out, flapping and launching herself awkwardly into the air. She flew in a large arc and landed behind a fence on the other side of the road.
As much as I wanted to, I didn’t touch the eggs. Not a single one, not even lightly. I just crouched there and stuck my nose into the grass as close as I possibly could without making contact. I knew she would be back.
The next day there were eight.
A month before I found the duck eggs, my sister Michaela came home early after working at the casino on the highway. When my mother asked why she’d been let out before the usual end of her shift, she stuffed her hand into a container of star-shaped biscochitos and put enough in her mouth that her answer was incomprehensible. She unloaded a roll of dollar bills she’d received as tips at the bar and yanked on the elastic band holding up her hair.
The weird period she was going through—this one where she’d dyed a long pink stripe into her black hair and was still working on a complicated back tattoo of a mechanical wing—was getting to me lately. Usually I kept quiet. And that night I still kept quiet, but I was going to make my annoyance known.
I drew on a piece of poster board with black permanent markers, in big block letters: you look like a FREEEEAK. Then I used duct tape to post it above the television, but nobody said anything. Michaela seemed to care least of all. In fact, no one appeared to even notice it was there. They all sat dumbly, eyes on the TV and hands set to the important task of digging through enchiladas oozing with greasy cheese.
Disappointment had ruined my appetite.
“You’re all helping clean out the acequias this year,” my father said into the space between him and the TV, like it wasn’t something he said every spring. As if at some point, one of us had defied him and declined to lend a hand.
My sister lifted her feet and rested them on a soccer ball on the floor in front of her. I slouched in my chair and kicked it away, her bare feet dropping to the carpet.
She sat up. “Luis is in jail again,” she said. “He was driving without a license and violated his probation.”
My father grunted and rolled his eyes as if she’d said it to get out of cleaning the ditches. Or maybe he was expressing what we all thought: of course he’s back in jail. He’s a loser. He’s going to become one of those perpetually drunk probation people lacking licenses.
Michaela never saw it that way. The part of him that was reckless and irresponsible she saw about as clearly as she saw the sign I’d hung on the wall meant especially for her eyes.
“So, I’m also pregnant,” she said.
Why she’d decided to tell us the first thing first, and the second thing second, I didn’t try to understand. I should have felt sorry about my teasing her, but I didn’t, because suddenly I felt myself become smaller. My sign was thoroughly ignored until a few weeks later when the tape dried out enough that it slid down the wall behind the TV cabinet in the middle of one of our family movie nights.
Then my father screamed, “What the hell was that?” and I rolled my eyes and jumped to retrieve it.
There was a small hole leading into the nest that the mother remade daily. An opening, maybe an escape route. In the afternoons, sometimes, the mother was gone and so I reclosed the gap as I went by, pulling the tall grass back into place.
Out on the mesa it smelled like crisp, piney juniper. The sun was increasing in intensity each day, so that my skin felt like it was being held under a broiler, as opposed to the blanket-like warmth of cloudier days.
We all hoped for more rain, though expected little, and prayed that the wildfires, when they started, wouldn’t wander too close to the farm.
Because it was mainly my job to take care of the chickens on the farm, I felt I had an acute and unique ability—if not responsibility—to pay close attention to the mother duck and her eggs. I was attentive, but not overbearing. I’d been reading about things. When to get the ducklings swimming. Not too early, and always with an easy escape plan. If for some reason, the mother disappeared, I wanted to be ready to step in.
Afraid that when the eggs hatched the family would choose to cross the street to begin the food-finding and flying-training in the pond over there, I had prepared in advance. I repurposed the sign I’d made for my sister, crossing out the name-calling and writing in its place, as well as on the back side: Drive slow. Baby ducklings. Thanks.
I savored the tiny but acute feeling of importance. It wasn’t just that I could do something good, greater than myself, but that no one had told me to do it. I had been the one who determined the need, and the course of action, and I was doing it too.
Some vultures wove circles around one another above me. I watched two coyotes chase a rabbit over a hill. The gullies cut twisted paths through the rust-orange walls, two or three times taller than me. I remembered the first time I’d been out there, a few years before when I followed an older girl from the neighborhood. She was always getting into trouble with boys. I went out with a camera, intent upon snapping an embarrassing photo of whatever she was up to. I was certain she was meeting a boy out there and that they’d be locking lips within seconds. I had no motive—maybe I just wanted to have some proof, even if only for myself, that no matter what, we all grow up and do things we will regret or at least deny.
But no. Instead I caught her in the act of burying something. I couldn’t see what it was from where I’d hidden myself within the dry, rough branches of a juniper bush. She stayed bent there for a long time, her hair in braided pigtails, her knees digging into the crusty dirt.
When she finally rose to leave, I saw she left crisscrossing sticks driven deep into the ground. Three sets of them. Three separate graves. I needed to know what was under there. My fingers plunged into the sun-baked dirt and I searched, only half-aware that what I might find could be unpleasant, possibly even dangerous.
I looked over my shoulder every few moments, itchy with a nervousness of getting caught. If I’d been watching unseen, who was to say someone else wasn’t watching me? I kept digging.
Nothing. Whatever she’d been doing, the sticks were merely symbolic.
That was the first time I’d explored the mesa—it was how I’d found it, following a different curiosity—but I was there almost every day afterward. Sometimes the whippet followed me. Sometimes I brought water and snacks and stayed all day. I always made a point of walking past the graves—or what I assumed were graves, but who could tell when I knew from my own inspection that they were empty?
My father wasn’t happy about Michaela being pregnant, and my mother had never been happy about her going out with Luis, so Michaela left. She moved into Luis’s mother’s place. I guess she had space now that Luis had gotten into trouble again.
When I got home that night and my parents told me this, I scoffed and threw up my hands, like something in life wasn’t fair. But the truth was I didn’t know why I’d reacted that way, or what it was I thought wasn’t fair. It didn’t make much difference to me—she didn’t pay any attention to me anyway—but maybe I was just hoping that it didn’t mean I’d be cleaning the ditches for two.
The next morning—the morning we were supposed to start digging out the acequias—I went out early. Five in the morning early. The eggs had been in the nest for almost a month and I knew that meant pretty soon they’d be hatching. I wanted to monitor the road, direct cars with my own hands if the sign failed.
I left the whippet behind because I knew she’d only get in the way. I also wondered if she’d feel some sense of heartache seeing the ducklings hatched because her own pups hadn’t lived.
I knew that everyone on the farm was starting to wake up. Pretty soon someone was sure to be muttering my name and cursing under their breath that I wasn’t there to help. I planned on being there. I just needed to make sure the eggs were okay.
A few bits of bloody egg shell were scattered across the road. There didn’t seem to be enough pieces to add up to even one whole shell. I searched for half an hour, but found nothing else.
In school, we were shown a video of the atomic bomb being tested. One of the kids in my class asked to see it again, and while the teacher bent to rewind it, we all watched it in reverse—the smoke and fire turning in on itself and vanishing into a small point in the desert. I imagined the ducklings hatching—thin, fragile curves of shell tearing and bursting open, floating into the air around the tiny bird, then reaching a point where it all stopped and reversed, every last fragment traveling backward and absorbed into the duckling’s body. I imagined it giving them a sort of superpower.
There was no sign of the mother. No sign of the babies. For a moment I wished I had brought the whippet, so she might have sniffed them out. As it was, I looked everywhere I could think to look, but they weren’t on the pond across the street and they weren’t anywhere in the marsh or hidden in the tall grass that I could see and eventually I had to give up and go home and hope that I’d just missed something.
When I got back to the house, one of our neighbors, Mary, was unlatching the gate. She was wearing a straw hat and a flowery dress that swirled around her ankles. Her car was parked in front of our mailboxes, still running. In her hand she had a small yellow bag that took me a moment to identify as my own. And once that occurred to me, I realized she was leaving—that she’d been inside the house and was re-latching the gate on her way out.
“There you are,” she said. “Your parents asked me to come pick you up and take you on a little day trip. I’ve got your things.”
At some point during my search for the ducklings, I’d forgotten that soon enough I’d be missed and in trouble for not helping with the acequias.
“What about the ditches?” I said. It seemed strange that I’d be given the luxury of a day trip—whatever that meant—with one of our overly nice neighbors. Didn’t she need to clear out the part of the ditches that ran through her property as well?
She didn’t answer.
“Where are we going?” I asked as I slid into the back seat of her car. Mary’s husband was sitting in the passenger seat and there was another woman, one I’d never met, already in the back. She introduced herself as Joan, Mary’s sister visiting from Seattle.
Mary passed my bag back to me and got into the front seat. Hanging out with three adults wasn’t exactly something I considered better than cleaning branches and leaves from the acequia. At least in a ditch you could pretend to be playing. Make games out of things even if they weren’t meant to be games.
“We’re going up to the hot springs,” Mary said, catching my eye in the rearview mirror. “Your parents say you’ve never been.”
“No,” I said quietly.
I hadn’t. I’d heard of them, but all I knew was what some of the kids at school told me. They weren’t hot for starters, just warm, and they smelled terrible. I still didn’t understand why I was going with them, at this particular moment, but it felt like a rude question to ask. Clearly all three of them thought they were doing a kind thing for me, for my parents. Maybe they were.
Joan smiled at me, then looked out her window. And I became even smaller.
The car ride took forty-five minutes, during which I almost fell asleep against the window. Nobody said anything. They listened to talk radio and at one point it was just obituaries being recited in a dull voice. Mary and her husband nodded solemnly when they heard a certain name, someone they must have known. They’d lived in our town for something like forty years.
All I could think about were the ducklings. I didn’t understand why, if I was exempt from having to rake leaves and drag branches, I couldn’t be left to do what I deemed important. I decided that once I got home, I’d look into what usually happens to duck eggs after they’ve hatched. Perhaps something subsisted specifically on a diet of shells, and not what was contained within. Perhaps the mother hides the shell pieces or eats them herself so they won’t be bright white confetti scattered to announce the ducklings’ vulnerable arrival. It all seemed possible.
In the locker room, women were changing into and out of their bathing suits, the sight of sagging skin and wrinkles so obvious that after looking away multiple times only to be confronted with the same view, I gave up. I took my bag into a bathroom stall and locked the door. Inside the bag, I found my swim suit, a towel, and a hair brush.
From inside, I heard Mary and Joan talking, the words floating over the stall door to me: Do you think she’d understand?
Understand what? I had no idea what they were talking about, but I knew they were referring to me and I figured I was old enough to understand anything as long as it was explained to me in clear English. I wasn’t a baby.
Outside, the adults drifted around each other in one pool that spilled over into another pool, one level below. Cliffs speckled with prickly pear and the occasional raven rose up around us. I wandered on my own, barefoot, realizing early that this trip had very little to do with showing me a good time. That Mary and her husband had been asked to babysit me suddenly became very clear, although they were doing a horrible job of it, hardly noticing where I was at any given moment, absorbed in their own conversations.
My fellow students were right. The water in the hot springs was hardly hot, more like a warm bath, and it smelled like garbage. No one else seemed to care or even notice the smell. I assumed it was one of those things that adults grow accustomed to, like the taste of beer or mushrooms.
And that was when I did it—became as small as ever. Became completely invisible.
Across from where I was sitting there was a gated pool, the water light brown. It reminded me of a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An entire tub of liquid milk chocolate. People inside the gate were standing around a giant pot filled with more of the same chocolate-colored water, but thicker. They slathered it onto themselves in a way that would seem wasteful if it were actually chocolate. It slopped onto the ground at their feet, ran down their backs and legs. Some of them went to lean on the railing, while others lay out on plastic lawn chairs. The sun dried the mud on their skin. It crackled and grew pale.
I got out of the pool and crossed the concrete path and slipped past the gate. I dipped my hands into the mud—both hands at once—and covered myself with it until it dripped from every part of me and I looked no different from the cliffs that surrounded us.
My skin tingled, the mud drying. I pressed myself against the warm earth, feeling myself become a part of it. The three adults who’d brought me there were just a few yards away. They couldn’t see me. I don’t think anyone could.
Which is how I heard what happened. That my sister had gone to the hospital, that there had been blood, that she was not pregnant. Mary had been right, I didn’t understand some things—like the word they used to describe what had happened—but there were other things—things I understood that they didn’t. That this was a phase, one of many revolutions. That there would be another and another.
I knew then that the ducklings were dead. That any searching I might do when I got home would only lead to the same inevitable truth. We are owed nothing. We are not promised anything—even life—but if we’re lucky, we sneak through. I was luckiest of all. I’d snuck through not just alive, but with the power of invisibility too. I could see without being seen.
I might have been sent away with our neighbors so I’d be out of the way, or because my parents thought I wasn’t old enough or that I’d have been scared. Whatever the reason, I was away, and whatever they were doing—crying or fighting or hugging one another—I may as well have been the poster board slowly slipping down the wall behind the television.
But I wouldn’t have changed it. I stood there for a long time listening to the chatter of others—meaningless and terribly important things— my back against the clay, invisible, yet thankful to have been born in a year the babies survived.
This story evolved as an attempt to capture a particular place and the people who lived there. The place was the small town in northern New Mexico where I lived, where I frequently saw nature as both beautiful and harsh: magnificent flash floods after a rain storm in a usually dry river bed, the neighbor’s dog wandering off into the desert to die.
The people of that place—farmers I knew, students I taught—had incredible, imaginative lives and such a strong sense of family despite multiple hardships they’d experienced. Joy and tragedy lived (and do live, everywhere) right up against one another, and the raw, wondering perspective of a child seemed the most interesting way to explore that.
Originally from New Hampshire, Jessica Bryant Klagmann received an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Whitefish Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. She now lives in northern New Mexico, where she and her husband frequently wonder who is wilder: their daughter or their dog.